Seven years ago, Dan Huttenlocher was professor and dean of Computing and Information Science at Cornell. But his world forever changed at the beginning of 2011 when the New York City Economic Development Corp., under the leadership of then Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, sought proposals to develop an applied sciences and engineering campus in the city.
That was the first step on a more than six-year journey that hits a historic milestone Sept. 13 with the dedication of Cornell Tech’s shimmering new campus on Roosevelt Island, in the heart of the city. After spending five years in Google-donated space on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, Cornell Tech made the move onto the 2-mile strip of land in the middle of the East River in August. Phase 1 of construction is near completion, but the campus isn’t expected to be fully built out and populated until 2043.
The youthful 58-year-old Huttenlocher – who prefers jeans, running shoes and a T-shirt to a suit and tie – sat down with the Chronicle Aug. 31 to discuss his early vision of the campus and how reality is matching up with it, the importance of outreach in the master’s degree Studio curricula, and how he sees Cornell Tech fitting into an ever-changing and increasingly digital world, now and in the future.
With dedication just days away, what are your thoughts and feelings on this long journey?
This is a transformative time for Cornell, for the city of New York and for the tech industry here. A lot has happened in the tech sector, nationally and globally, and in the city in the last six years. When this campus started, the tech sector was still a question in New York; that’s not a question anymore. It’s here. New York City is the center of tech on the East Coast and one of the largest areas for venture-capital investment in the industry. Cornell Tech is playing a role in that. We’re not the only thing going on, but I do think we’re a flagship for what tech in New York means.
Does Phase 1 make good on the initial promise and vision of “a new kind of university campus” – one that has “broken the mold” in terms of graduate education and curriculum?
It’s definitely new – I don’t know about “breaking the mold.” That sounds like we set out to break something, which isn’t what we set out to do. Various things about Cornell Tech are different from graduate programs elsewhere. At the master’s level, we have this tightly integrated Studio curriculum, where students in engineering and computer and information science, business and law spend a quarter to a third of their curriculum together. You don’t see that kind of integration at the graduate level in any programs anywhere in the world, that I know of. We also have the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, which has two master’s programs in information science focused on health tech and connective media. These two-year programs allow students to get really technical within the context of a specific industry. We have a global view in our educational programs, and I think at the master’s level, there are a lot of aspects of the campus that are really revolutionary.
You have said you learned from your experiences with startups not to have too many expectations early on. Did you stick to that approach?
I really did try not to have expectations at the beginning, but our initial articulation of what we were about – the mix of engineering, computer and information science, business and the societal impact of technology, and that this was the time to develop a new kind of graduate school that mixed those together – has proven remarkably true. We have not swayed one inch from that vision.
Vision is about not being too committed to how you’re going to get there. I think the thing that sets many new organizations up for failure is saying, “This is how we’re going to get to the vision.” In something new, that’s pretty much a disaster, because you really have no idea how you’re going to get there. In the beginning we had no conception of the Studio master’s curriculum at all. We knew we wanted to somehow figure out how you have a meaningful educational experience that brings master’s students from vastly different programs together. We wanted to know how you build effective teams and tie that to social and economic impact. Those are the questions we were asking, and the Studio has been one really interesting way of delivering on that.
What aspects of Cornell Tech culture that developed in Google’s Chelsea building are re-created on Roosevelt Island?
Google was incredibly generous in providing us space in their very tight quarters in Chelsea. And the space we inherited was not purpose-built for educational use – it was open-plan office space being used by the tech industry. We had to make the best of some space that wasn’t designed for education, but in that time, we learned the flexible elements were a real asset. Having the big, open collaboration areas – spaces that can be used for teamwork, for critique, for presentations – proved to be very important. And in The Bridge, a building where companies reside side by side with us, almost the whole first floor is Studio teaching space, which we realized was critical from our time in the Google building.
How would you describe the faculty you have recruited to teach at Cornell Tech? How has excitement about Cornell Tech influenced the university’s ability to recruit and retain them?
With just a few exceptions, we’re hiring faculty who are all new to Cornell – people who are very excited to be part of Cornell, and to collaborate with colleagues in Ithaca and at Weill Cornell Medicine. But there are also faculty who are very attracted by the idea of having one foot in the academic world and one outside of academia, which is not the case in most research universities. Usually, computer science and engineering faculty don’t have a responsibility beyond their research and teaching. Our faculty do, and that’s what brings them here – the opportunity to be in that kind of an environment.
Why do students choose Cornell Tech?
I think students today are very drawn to having an impact. A lot of students are motivated by both societal and economic impact, and this is a campus that’s focused on combining that with fundamentals to last them through their careers. This isn’t a place to come to just have a practical impact. Students are learning skills that they would learn on any university campus in a graduate program, that are going to help them through their professional lives, but they are also coupling those skills with the opportunity to make a direct impact today by working with companies, with nonprofit organizations and with city agencies. The technical and fundamental material is all here, but the things that would have been free electives in a corresponding program in Ithaca are pretty much gone. There are practical curricula instead.
What are a few examples of the kinds of industry partnerships and the external engagement by Cornell Tech faculty and students?
Some of the partnerships are the ones being manifested in the Bridge building. Frankly, it’ll be another six to 12 months before we really know what that means, because none of those companies (Two Sigma, Citigroup Inc., Ferrero) is in The Bridge yet. But all of those companies have been involved in the Product Studio, which is the fall semester part of our Studio curriculum, where companies and organizations propose challenges that student teams work on. The companies provide the challenge and mentorship, and student teams often go and present at the company or the organization.
And then there’s a lot of work that we do in the community. Google is a great example where we’ve done a lot of things together around K-12 education. We also have WiTNY (Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York), which is aimed at encouraging undergraduate women to enter careers in technology and transition into graduate school, and that’s a partnership with Cornell Tech, City University of New York and eight or 10 companies, led by Verizon.
Issues that are a concern to all of us, like diversity in the tech community, access to technology education in the public schools, those are areas where we have very strong collaborations – not just with the relevant city agencies, but with corporate partners.
How many startups have been formed by Cornell Tech students and graduates?
I believe there are 34 companies now, a mix of companies launched out of the Jacobs Institute’s Runway Postdoc Program and coming out of the Startup Studio, and faculty startup activity. And those companies really run the gamut; they’re all involved with digital technology, software and hardware or a mix of the two, but they’re everything from consumer applications to devices, the medical arena, to media and communications. Pick an industry, and there are probably projects that our students and postdocs have been involved with. Most of those companies are here in New York, because we have really strong ties to the customers and early stage investors here.
What are you most proud of regarding Cornell Tech, and what are you most excited about for its future?
That’s kind of like asking a parent, “Who’s your favorite kid?” The implausibility of this project is my favorite thing about it. It still sounds sort of absurd: We’re going to build a campus in the middle of New York City, and attract the best faculty and students in the world to it, and do it in a few years. It’s just pretty implausible.
As for the future, we haven’t seen anything yet. This is just the beginning. We’re 300 students now; we plan to be 2,000 to 2,500 full-time students at full buildout. We’re at 30 tenure-track faculty and maybe 60 to 65 overall faculty; that number’s going to be four times as big. We’ve just scratched the surface of collaborations with Weill Cornell Medicine, and you see what’s happening with technology and medicine. That’s going to be a huge growth area for us over the next decade. There is just so much yet to happen – that’s the amazing thing.